Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Sondheim at 75 (Part Three)

This review originally appeared in The Metro Herald in September 1998:

A Late Summer Night's Dream:
Signature's A Little Night Music Sings
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

How does one approach a dream deferred? With considerable creativity and verve, it would seem, if Signature Theatre's new production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music is any guide.

Originally announced for last season [spring 1998], Signature had to delay staging A Little Night Music for budgetary reasons. Yet the delay paid off, both because the replacement last season (A Stephen Sondheim Evening) was a low-budget delight, and because the extra time permitted artistic director Eric D. Schaeffer to uncover new orchestrations for A Little Night Music that had been performed just once before, in England, which allow a rich, 14-piece sound to resonate through Signature's intimate space instead of the smaller sound of a quartet that the producers had initially expected to use.

A Little Night Music is a visual stunner. Lou Stancari's sets and Anne Kennedy's costumes remind one of Jonathan Miller's 1987 production of The Mikado for the English National Opera, in which sets and costumes were all done in shades of white, with splashes of color serving only as punctuation. So, too, here at Signature: Stancari's basic set, an outdoor garden, is shaded in the grey-white of cement and unpainted plaster. Kennedy's sumptuous costumes range from bright white to ecru to eggshell to light beige, punctuated with occasional color splashes. Exceptions are the costumes for the quintet that serves as a kind of "Greek chorus," who are clothed in black, which has the psychological effect of rendering them invisible. (But why put Jean Cantrell into a knee-length black cocktail dress when the rest of the adult females wear floor-length gowns appropriate to the turn-of-the-century setting?) Young Fredrika's angel's wings in the second act, while curious, are not out of place for a playful adolescent, and make her into something of a Cupid for previously mismatched lovers.

Complementing and elevating these visual elements is the lighting design by Jonathan Blandin. Through subtle shading and coloring, through gobo projections, Blandin transports us to the "perpetual sunset" of a Nordic summer. If anything other than acting itself can wrench emotion out of an audience, it is lighting such as this.

And then there is the music itself. This play is called, after all, "A Little Night Music." (In a subtle musical pun, Fredrik whistles the opening bars of Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.") This is perhaps Sondheim's most tuneful score, as difficult as that may be to judge. It produced his only Top Ten single, Judy Collins' recording of "Send in the Clowns." That song alone has been recorded at least 700 times by artists as diverse as Acker Bilk, Mabel Mercer, and Frank Sinatra.

What's not well-known about "Send in the Clowns" is that it was a late addition to the score. Sensing something missing from a key scene in the second act, director Harold Prince consulted with Glynis Johns, the original Desiree Armfeldt, and Len Cariou, the original Fredrik Egerman, about the underlying emotions of the scene. From their conversations, Sondheim wrote a new song that was inserted into the score just two days before the show opened in Boston on its pre-Broadway tryout. Earlier this year, Johns told the quarterly Sondheim Review her feelings about other singers and actresses performing the song that she introduced 25 years ago:

"When it comes out of context of the play, it's acceptable when you have a lovely singer like Judy Collins doing it. She does it in the most acceptable way for me. One singer, who shall be nameless, said to me, ‘I've never known what that lyric meant!' And I nearly said, ‘That's pretty obvious, dear!'"
In context, the song itself flows seamlessly from the libretto and the delicate conversation between Desiree and Fredrik as they discuss their fates. Its reprise in the finale links the two characters together charmingly and endearingly.

This is not to say that A Little Night Music is a one-song show. The eleven o'clock number, "The Miller's Son," is handed to a rather minor character, Petra the maid. Yet this lusty song, in the style of an English folk song, sums up the carpe diem, "gather ye rosebuds while ye may" philosophy that animates the entire play. Sherri L. Edelen delivers it randily.

Then there is "Liaisons," a bolero sung by the aged Madame Armfeldt, who reminisces about her own youth while reflecting on her daughter's current life and future. Interestingly, this song bears echoes of both "Maria" and "Quintet" from West Side Story (Sondheim's collaboration with composer Leonard Bernstein), which might be Sondheim's nuanced way of drawing comparisons between headstrong youth and wiser, more deliberate grown-ups.

But how to choose? The trio of "Now," "Later," and "Soon" (sung, respectively, by Fredrik, his son Henrik, and his child bride Anne) is woven together ingeniously. "You Must Meet My Wife" is a darkly comic musical conversation between Fredrik and Desiree, while "Every Day a Little Death" is a biting commentary on love and faithlessness by Charlotte and Anne.

There is not a wasted musical moment in this play.

Still, the magnificent score would go nowhere were it not for a remarkably talented cast. Stephanie Waters is simply delightful as Anne, whose youthful enthusiasm delays her sexual and romantic awakening. Robb McKindles is Henrik, the theology student and personification of Kierkegardian angst, whose dark night of the soul leads the way not only to his own spiritual and physical redemption, but that of his father and stepmother as well.

Christopher Flint portrays a pompous and slightly dense Count Carl-Magnus, and Donna Migliaccio deftly handles him as his long-suffering wife, Charlotte.

Ilona Dulaski sparkles as Madame Armfeldt, whose pithy, aphoristic comments on life and love frame the play. John Herrera gives us a Fredrik who is lawyerly and stuffy on the outside, but clearly yearning for something deeper on the inside. Similarly, Patricia Pearce Gentry takes a character, Desiree Armfeldt, who could be dismissed as a flighty celebrity, and infuses her with depth and maturity.

Director Frank Lombardi has assembled a remarkable collection of talent both on stage and behind it. He has created a breathtaking Night Music that deserves to be seen by every Sondheim aficionado within driving distance of Arlington.

A Little Night Music runs through September 27 at the Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive in Arlington.

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1 comment:

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